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A weekend snapshot of political Bengal

Maybe politics is the vaccine of Bengal, says MJ Akbar (Photo: IANS)

Anyone seen a pandemic lately? Not in Bengal. The long journey from Calcutta through Bantalabajaar, Ghatakpur, Bhangor, Minakha, Bidhyadhari, Taapi, Bashirhat, Barasat; and along the Grand Trunk Road in Hooghly district over the Easter weekend on the following day, was alive with the minor bustle of roadside commerce, and the guarded or overt excitement of another election. The one thing in common across differences of human age, gender, profession, caste and faith was that no one wore a mask. Maybe politics is the vaccine of Bengal.

There was a second surprise. For some inexplicable reason, there were no posters of the only vote-winner for the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, outside Calcutta and its immediate suburbs.  If development is the antithesis of Mamata Banerjee’s decade in power, then for the BJP Narendra Modi is the one magnet which can make the voter switch. Perhaps the BJP had left this visual appeal for the final phase of the campaign.

The 65 constituencies of densely-populated south and north 24-Parganas constitute a formidable bloc within the Bengal Assembly. Once upon a time, two and a half centuries ago, these Parganas wrote the opening chapter of a new history book. They were the first revenue districts of the East India Company after Robert Clive defeated Siraj ud Daulah in 1757, and hence the economic base which financed the growth of the Company’s realms, which became the launchpad of Britain’s formidable Indian Empire. The Raj thanked its birthplace with a canal. We drove alongside this canal till it gave way to water bodies known as bheris, fish farms which supply the hungry markets of Calcutta mainly with insatiable quantities of prawn.  

Fish is both sustenance and symbol of Bengal. The delectable Ilish, or Hilsa, is a delicacy beyond the confines of sects and borders; its many recipes are the pride of every Bengali kitchen. Among the first lessons that a child learns, from a combination of necessity and instinct, is to separate the sharp and potentially dangerous needle-spine bones from fish flesh in the mouth, for they can often slip through the web of fingers while being eaten with rice. Fish, says international lore, is good for the brain; for the Bengali mother getting her daughter or son ready for a school examination, the intellectual efficacy of maachher jhol [the thin gravy of fish] is inherited fact, not supposition.  You will not easily find a vegetarian in the state.

Food, poetry, music and spontaneous wit, the essence of adda, or chat, define the unique ambience of Bengal. Language and culture subsume, although they do not eliminate, differences of faith. The political history of the British period and its final scalpel cut through the heart of India, partition, injured this cultural homogeneity, but not fatally; it survived the assault. A quarter century after 1947, the tsunami power of the Bengali language channeled an emotional mass upsurge which culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971.

The intonation and dialect of Bengali differ between eastern and western Bengal, but there is nothing called “Muslim Bengali” and “Hindu Bengali”.  Every Bengali shares the power of a common poetry, which is why the national anthem of Bangladesh is a paean written by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. The British did their best to destroy this amity, in ways blatant as well as subtle. One of their more nefarious decisions was to create separate drinking water facilities at railway platforms, which they labeled “Hindu paani” and “Muslim paani”. But there is no “Hindu” or “Muslim” in the music of boatmen.  Bengalis take pride in their culture.

Unsurprisingly, one man who recognized and defended the difference was Mahatma Gandhi, the  wise father of modern India who understood the multi-throb heart of his countrymen better than anyone else. Gandhi was a fierce vegetarian; indeed, he took minimalism to new levels, sometimes subsisting only on nuts, and describing himself as a “nutarian”. During the lethal winter of 1946-47 this smiling, sagacious, toothless apostle of non-violence went on an epic four-month mission to heal communal wounds in Noakhali, on the eastern fringe of united Bengal. As an exercise in self-abnegation, he had reduced his diet to two sparse meals a day. His early lunch consisted of eight ounces of goat’s milk, an ounce of fresh lime and a vegetable paste without salt, spice or oil which others in his small band found decidedly inedible.

One Bengali academic in Gandhi’s entourage could hardly be blamed when he sidestepped the puritan travelling kitchen, and ate the appetizing local fish. Word spread. A journalist mischievously asked the Mahatma if killing fish did not amount to violence. Gandhi replied that Bengal was a land of water, so where was the harm in anyone eating fish? In any case, he added tartly, eating fish was less harmful than the damage human beings inflicted by selling adulterated food.

New borders do not change the physiognomy of people. Bengalis in south 24-Parganas, stretching down south to the Sundarban, look and dress like their counterparts in the east. Two thirds of the Sundarban is in Bangladesh. Sundar-ban is not the Bengali term for a beautiful [sundar] forest [ban]; it comes from the large and plentiful mangrove Sundari trees within the 10,000 square kilometers of saltwater and soil between the Meghna and the Hooghly estuaries as these beautiful and vivacious rivers decant the waters of Brahmaputra and Ganga into the Bay of Bengal.

In dress, however, you might begin to differentiate between Hindus and Muslims. Muslim men wear the lungi [derived from the longyi, the national dress of Burma] and sport a thin straggle of a beard; women drape their saris over the head. Hindu men wear the dhoti or more often the wide pyjama.  But common traditions are equally evident. Names spill across religion.   Rufika Mondal is a Muslim candidate for Trinamool from North 24 Parganas; Mondal is the pre-Islamic caste name, and still a source of her social identity. At Paglahaat, Mustafa Molla advertises his sweetmeat shop as a boon from “Maayer Aashirvad” [Mother’s Blessings; there is implicit duality here, for mother can refer to both a birth mother and Ma Durga]. The Annapurna Hindu Hotel nestles in the vicinity of biryani outlets. In Ghatakpukur, the Haji Royal Biryani makes clear on the signboard that there is no beef in the biryani. Other mini-restaurants or food outlets  prefer silence on the subject.

There are some, albeit stray, signs of change. The Frozen Garden Village Resort, off the highway, is beyond the means of still-meagre rural incomes, but within the reach of upwardly mobile Calcutta gentry who have to drive just an hour for a staycation. A tannery built on modern lines has become the new home of the old, and odorous leather workshops in Calcutta’s Tangra locality. The City English School at Chandipur speaks to those in rural Bengal who aspire to join the Big Town.

Party flags and slogans are generally located in a cluster around the election office; but if buntings were to determine the race, then Mamata Banerjee would be far ahead. However, this district is her stronghold, which she retained even during the general elections of 2019.

A big gate has come up on the main road [not quite a highway yet] in the name of Twaha Siddiqui, a descendant of the pir, or saint, Hazrat Abu Baqar Siddique [1846-1939], whose shrine at Furfura Sharif in Hooghly district is considered by his followers as second in sanctity only to Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan. His five sons are also buried there, giving it an alternative name: Panch Huzur Keblah. Hazrat Abu Baqar is revered for social reform, charitable orphanages and schools including, famously, a school for girls. The religious shrine dominated the headlines for a few days at the start of this election campaign when one of the family, Abbas Siddiqui, joined the Secular Front set up by Marxists and the Congress. Twaha Siddiqui has remained loyal to Mamata Banerjee; hence the celebratory gate with his picture in Trinamool territory.

The economic landscape does not improve until we near Bashirhat and Tapi, where crowded markets display modern utilities like Korean refrigerators, and smaller shops offer savories and India-made household essentials which will end up being sold at a higher price for villagers with lower incomes. Such are the practical sinews of capitalism.  

Tapi has a government school with a sturdy building and spacious compound, a public library, a bookshop named Gitanjali Pustakalaya, at least one hostelry for visitors [Indian Guest House], and medicine shops with ebullient nomenclatures like Remedy Zone. A “Make-Up Artist”, Mini Ghosh, offers her skills through an advertising poster.

The new attraction in town is a modern resort on the banks of the Ichamati river, which has filled up with guests from Calcutta on a weekend break. The holiday shrieks of children running through the lobby as their parents go through the check-in procedure rise above the adult murmur like sharp punctuation marks. The screaming laughter is duplicated in the café on the first floor, where the aroma of fish and spiced up by kosha mangsho, a favourite and delicious  recipe for mutton, rises above the buffet.   The staff look very relieved at the return of work. Outside, autorickshaws wait to take customers to the riverside for an hour’s boat-ride. In theory, the boats must stick to their half of the Ichamati, for the middle of the river is an international border.

Across the river is Bangladesh. A few country boats sit quietly on the other shore, waiting for no one. Immediately to our left is an outpost of the Border Security Force, guarding the midway demarcation of Ichamati. But no river can be fenced. The ambit of a guard is not unlimited. If the people on both sides of divide continue to live calmly in their own villages, it is because they want to, not because they are forced to.

We sit under a shelter on our bank, watching the silent drama of a river flowing by. Gradually the eyes adjust through the sunlight to the strength of the undertow, in either the surface movement of water or the occasional bit of flotsam. This is a clean river. And then you notice that there is more than one current in its belly as it interacts with the searching tides from the Bay of Bengal. Currents can run parallel and boatmen know which precise line will pull in their direction as they navigate their goods or passengers.

It is tempting to use this image as a metaphor for the Bengal elections. Many currents are in play, and voters are selecting parallel routes to their preferred destinations. The essence of these Assembly elections can be pared down to two questions.

The BJP asks the voter a simple question: do you want any more of Mamata Banerjee?

Mamata Banerjee has a counter question: do you want any of BJP?

Contrary to reputation, Bengali voters are patient. They gave Congress two decades in office before turning it out in 1967. This was followed by an uncertain decade divided between the four troubled years of non-Congress coalition governments, and five years of a militant Congress led by Siddhartha Shankar Ray. In the summer of 1977, with Emergency over, Jyoti Basu’s Marxists were elected, a little to their own surprise. No party has made better use of opportunity than the Marxists. Bengal saw 35 years of unprecedented stability before voters pushed the eject button. Observers have generally attributed such longevity to the Marxist cadre and its violence-coated electoral machinery. In politics, a machine can do ten per cent of the heavy lifting. The rest depends on popular sentiment and support, which is conditioned by more substantive factors like social welfare and economic benefits.

Jyoti Basu did not survive on charisma, whim or smile; he won five    consecutive elections thanks to a radical policy which earned Marxists a lifetime’s gratitude from the peasantry. Operation Barga introduced reforms which gave the cultivator land and better irrigation, raising rural incomes. From 1977 till 2000, or all through Jyoti Basu’s leadership, Bengal’s per capita income remained on an upward curve, not fully on par with the average for the whole of India, but still growing at a similar rate. This positive graph began to slide after 2004 because the rural economy alone could not satisfy the aspirations of a generation seeking their first jobs in the 21st century.

While Basu himself was largely amenable to economic reforms, he faced entrenched resistance from doctrinaire elements within the CPI[M] politburo, who were convinced that all intellectual innovation had stopped with Stalin. With so many competing Indian State Governments offering a red-carpet welcome, industry kept out of the Left Front’s frayed and union-dominated environment. Jyoti Basu’s successor Buddhadev Bhattacharya had a decade in which to regenerate industry. He could not. The Marxists were crushed by Mamata Banerjee in 2011. Bengal, which had been in the forefront of industrialization till the 1960s, lost out. Over the thirty-year period from 1991, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka have recorded twice as much industrial growth as Bengal.

But these three decades have included ten years of Mamata Banerjee.  She promised dramatic change and all that the people saw was a different name on the Chief Minister’s cabin. If the TMC is vulnerable it is because the gap in per capita income between Bengal and the rest of India has increased in the last ten years. Bengal’s figure was Rs 58,195 against India’s average of Rs 70,893 in 2012-13; it is now Rs 115,748 vis a vis Rs 135,050. The difference, as noted above, arises primarily from the lack of industrial investment rather than drop in agricultural income. This rising disenchantment was reflected in the elections of 2019, when BJP exceeded expectations in the industrial spines of Bengal which run on parallel lines along both the banks of the Hooghly. These industries, begun during the British Raj, were enhanced by Indian industrialists after independence.

The young are not motivated by agriculture; they want jobs. For obvious reasons, Mamata Banerjee avoids economics and development in her speeches. Instead, she positions BJP as the “outsider” with an unacceptable veneer. The irony is that her evidence comes from those who turned their coats on the eve of the polls. Suvendu Adhikari, her opponent in Nandigram and once her hand-picked party stalwart, described Muslims in Nandigram as “Pakistanis” and declared that he did not want their votes. Not that he was getting them anyway; but his toxic accusations helped consolidate Muslim voters in Mamata Banerjee’s favour. Abbas Siddiqui, who threatened to damage Trinamool by splitting the Muslim vote, has fallen silent.

It does not take too much conversation to recognize Trinamool voters. They willingly concede that there has been rampant corruption, but then offer an alibi:  henchmen took the money, and the crooks have all left.  It is a thin alibi. Let’s call it the entrée of survival fare in the last-chance saloon. A reputation for endemic, down-the-line corruption is the single biggest negative that Mamata Banerjee must overcome, or at least elude, in order to survive.

The Bengal voter may be  patient, but  when that patience is exhausted, the shift is decisive, as it was in 1967, 1977 and 2011. The Congress was broken in 1967, and its temporary restoration in 1972 was due only to Mrs Indira Gandhi’s sharp rise in popularity after the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971. The Left was crushed in 2011; today the remnants of Congress and the Left are barely visible in the debris of electoral politics.

The BJP is bolstered by three factors: a visible urge for change; the strong base it has built among backward castes and communities; and a general feeling that Mamata Banerjee has indulged in appeasement of Muslims. There is palpable support for BJP among voters with sectoral interests to project or defend, like the Matua community.

Conversely, Mamata Banerjee has a virtual lock on the Muslim vote, and continues to be popular with women. Played the “outsider” card, she tags her opponents as more loyal to Delhi than to Bengal. Since wit is endemic to Calcutta’s political discourse, those Bengalis who normally live out of Bengal have been dubbed “Dalda Bengalis”, as opposed to the “real ghee” of homegrown candidates.

The stakes in 2021 are high, which is why the battle is so keen. This election will determine, at an obvious lever, who forms the next government in Calcutta; but it will also have implications for the developing battle for the next general elections. If the script runs along BJP expectations, then the party will have taken a tremendous stride towards its objective of an all-India footprint, in addition to governing a state widely considered beyond its reach.  Indeed, any number in three figures for the party constitutes a massive advance, given that BJP got only three Assembly seats five years ago. If Mamata Banerjee’s projection is accurate then she will take her first credible step towards a national role. Non-BJP parties are inhibited by the absence of a leader who can hold a coalition together. Their search could pause with the relentless Mamata Banerjee.

Rahul Gandhi does not cut the mustard. Thanks to his uncertain grasp of governance, and inability to understand the grammar of political language, Congress is mired in fragile territory. It does not require any secret intelligence to suggest that a national role must be on Mamata Banerjee’s mind.

It used to be said that when Bengal sneezes India catches a cold. We might have to amend that. When Bengal catches political fever, Indian politics heats up.

(MJ Akbar is an MP and the author of, most recently, Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle Against Jinnah’s Islam)